the Nest Files – Prairie Warbler

Adult male Prairie Warbler (D.Derbyshire)


Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor)

Nidiologicals – Peck and James (1987) and Nolan,V.,Jr., E.D.Ketterson, and C.A.Buerkle (1999)

Habitat – Dry, early successional shrubland habitats ranging from pine plantations, dunes, mangroves, barrens, clearcuts and abandoned fields.
Microhabitat – Cup nest usually well concealed in upper crotches of shrub
Spring arrival – Early to mid May (Ontario)
Average nest height – .6m-.9m
Nest builder – Female only
Average # of broods/season – 1-2 (variable with latitude and local conditions)
Average egg laying date – 8 June-19 June (Ontario)
Average clutch size – 3-5 eggs
Incubation period – Average 12 days
Egg colour – White to greenish white with variable brown spots, usually wreathed at larger end.
Incubation – Female only
Brown-headed Cowbird host – Yes

Prairie Warbler habitat (nest site in foreground)

The Prairie Warbler is a rare but regular breeding species in Ontario. It is estimated that about 300 pairs occur annually in the province, although there is some evidence of recent decline due to habitat succession of granitic rock barrens along the edge of the southern shield region. We’ve been surveying and studying Prairies in Frontenac Provincial Park for the last two years and have found a small but apparently healthy population in open barrens with scattered young trees and pockets of dense shrub cover. The above photo was taken within the core breeding area, which is about 20 hectares in size and characterized by low tree cover, exposed rock, dense ground vegetation and thick patches of vibernum sp. and junipers. Most Prairie Warbler territories here are associated with sloped shoreline edges of beaver ponds and lakes, which may be a function of denser shrub growth occurring in lower lying areas.

Shrubs along rocky slope (nest site in foreground)

This photo shows a typical nest site along a rocky slope where Downy Arrowwood (Viburnum rafinesqueanum) proliferates. Four nests have been found so far this summer and all but one were positioned near the top of a viburnum at heights between .7m-1.3m. All four nests have been located along slopes ranging from gentle to sharp and with no apparent preference for aspect.

Prairie Warbler Nest with eggs

Prairie Warbler nests resemble those of the Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia), a fairly close relative but less common inhabitant of the rock barrens. Prairie Warblers favour hot and dry environments while Yellow Warblers tend to occupy wetter shrubland habitats with a more flexible tolerance for shade/canopy closure. This nest with four eggs was discovered on June 26 when a female was flushed from a small clump of viburnum. When incubating female Prairie Warblers notoriously sit tight and only flush when very closely approached.

Nest in viburnum

This is a shot of the same nest within the shrub. Prior to nest searching this season I was anticipating that Ground Juniper (Juniperus communis) would be the most common host plant for nests but it seems that the viburnums are more abundant and probably preferred here. They are a stout and sturdy shrub with woody main stems and branches, while the leaf cover provides excellent concealment and weather shielding from all sides. The only non-viburnum nest was located in a lonicera sp. that grew within a large clump of Downy Arrowwood.

Prairie Warbler nest with five young (5-6 days old)

Two of the four nests were found by patiently following adults carrying beakfulls of plump, green caterpillars. One of our colour banded males (nickname “Whitey”) led me to this nest with five young. Thanks are due to Julie Zickefoose for helping Seabrooke and I age these nestlings. These little prairielets were identified as being 5-6 days old and only a few days away from leaving the nest.

Incubating female

This female was photographed incubating on June 26. When I returned five days later I was disappointed to find that the nest had failed, probably due to predation. Common Grackles, Blue Jays and snakes would be the most likely nest predators in the barrens. I’ve twice found Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis sauritus) above the ground within shrubs here. On the upside it appeared that the female, or perhaps a different female, was preparing to rebuild within the territory or perhaps even reuse the failed nest. The attached male (also colour banded) was singing vigorously while the female inspected forks of shrubs and called softly. On two occasions she was observed for five-minute periods shaping and touching up the failed nest. Hopefully the second attempt will fair better than the first!

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